Second to One
From the October 17, 2011, issue of NR.

Signing New START, April 8, 2010


Since the start of the atomic age, from Harry Truman to George W. Bush, the United States has sought to maintain, in the words of John F. Kennedy, a nuclear-weapons capability “second to none.” Each of these eleven successive administrations, Democratic and Republican alike, described its commitment to that principle differently, some insisting on superiority and others on parity or essential equivalence. But all — including those that took large and unilateral steps to reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal following the Cold War — believed that it was vital for the United States not to concede nuclear preeminence to any country.

In pursuing the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and notwithstanding his administration’s stated commitment to maintaining an effective deterrent for as long as necessary, President Obama has abandoned this bedrock of our national security. Under New START, often heralded by the administration as its greatest foreign-policy success, the United States is compelled to substantially reduce its strategic forces — while Russia is allowed to build up its forces, which Moscow has announced its intention to do. As a consequence of this treaty and of the significant advantages that Russia possesses in other measures of nuclear might, the United States will for the first time become a nation “second to one” in what remains a vital military capability in an increasingly dangerous world with ever greater proliferation.

Defenders of the Obama administration’s policies are quick to assert that the nuclear posture of the United States today is superior to that of Russia and all other nuclear-weapons states combined. In support of this assertion, they cite the United States’ current advantage in deployed operational strategic warheads and launchers. But this is the very advantage that is given up under New START. The United States currently deploys about 1,800 warheads on 822 strategic delivery vehicles. Russia, according to its initial declaration under the treaty, deploys 1,537 warheads on 521 delivery vehicles. Under New START, each side will be allowed 1,550 warheads and 700 deployed vehicles.

But by suggesting parity, these numbers mislead, because they do not accurately reflect the overall nuclear capabilities of the two countries — or perhaps even the capabilities of those forces covered under New START. One provision of the treaty is a change in counting rules: Each heavy bomber is counted as carrying one warhead, no matter what its actual load. While this rule applies to both sides, and will allow each to deploy a number of actual (as opposed to accountable) warheads well above 1,550, it is unlikely that both will take advantage of the rule. Russia has a record of fully exploiting such provisions in arms-control treaties and, if it does so again, it could deploy even more warheads than the 2,200 permitted under the Moscow Treaty negotiated by the George W. Bush administration. The United States will likely want to set a different example by staying at or below 1,550.

Most important, thousands of Russian nuclear weapons carried by shorter-range systems — including everything from artillery to medium-range aircraft — are not counted under New START. With the notable exception of the 1987 INF Treaty, these weapons, referred to as “theater” or “tactical” nuclear forces, have largely been ignored by nuclear strategists and arms-control experts, who have focused almost entirely on weapons that can reach beyond 5,500 kilometers.

This division between “strategic” and “tactical” weapons is primarily a relic of Cold War arms control, based in large part on the inherent difficulties of verifying shorter-range, often dual-capable systems (that is, widely dispersed delivery systems that can carry both nuclear and non-nuclear warheads). To facilitate the negotiation of arms-control treaties, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to categorize only specific long-range missiles and bombers as “strategic,” while mostly ignoring nuclear-armed systems that were deemed “non-strategic” — an oxymoron, because the use of any nuclear weapon would have a strategic effect.

Adopting this convenient designation of “non-strategic” nuclear weapons seemed both necessary and acceptable. Necessary because including them in arms negotiations was considered simply too hard to do; and acceptable because the numbers of American and Soviet long-range weapons ran into the high thousands, making an agreement on shorter-range systems seem less urgent. But with today’s much lower levels of strategic forces, the importance of theater weapons has increased substantially.

While both the United States and Russia deployed thousands of theater nuclear weapons during the Cold War, the current numbers show a dramatic disparity. As revealed by a key Obama adviser, the United States possesses a “few hundred” tactical weapons, while Russia deploys an estimated 3,500 to 4,000. When these thousands of weapons (which in some cases can strike the same targets as those delivered by longer-range systems) are included in the counting of nuclear arsenals, the emerging inferiority of the United States stands out.